We started our vacation here. Then there was Day 2.
And now, here we are. It's Day 3, and if all goes well, we will eat dinner at my Mom's new "house" (actually it's an apartment, but you know what I mean). We are still about 500 miles away; we get another early start after a healthy breakfast.
After about 90 minutes we stop for a break, as is our custom; today we are all Interstate highways and toll roads, so there are plenty of places along the way to take a break. We stretch our legs, use the bathroom, climb back into the minivan, and pull out on to the Interstate. Less than 5 miles later we come to a full and complete stop.
Traffic on the other side of the road is zooming along, but here on our side, we are at a standstill. I have nightmare visions of the traffic coming up behind us at full speed and simply plowing right into the back of us. I keep a healthy distance between my front bumper and the back bumper of the truck ahead of us. We are in the left lane; there is no way to move over, as the right lane is now solidly packed with vehicles also. In just a few minutes we are surrounded by cars and trucks - a two lane parking lot that stretches as far as I can see in both directions. Every now and again, we inch forward a bit; after a little while Twinks and I have named most of the people in the vehicles around us. The older couple in the big Crown Vic are "Gramma and Grampa". There is a Smith family (in the minivan nearly identical to ours) and the Jones family (in another minivan) There is Speedy McSpeedster, a rather vain young man in a convertible who spends much of his time admiring the reflection in all of his rear-view mirrors, as well as the mirror attached to the sun visor. We all crawl forward together; in thirty minutes we have gone somewhere around 7 miles.
Finally, we come to the scene of the accident that has caused this traffic jam. Twinks looks away; I do not have that luxury. There is a pickup truck that had been pulling a travel trailer; The travel trailer has had the skin peeled away from the drivers side, and you can see into the trailer. It is listing heavily towards the pavement. There are personal belongings and large pieces of sheet metal strewn everywhere. The pickup is damaged, but upright. There is another vehicle, crumpled beyond recognition, off on the right side of the road. It seems as though the ambulances must have come and gone already, because the only people milling about are firemen and Highway Patrol officers. As soon as we pass the scene, the traffic speeds up, and we are running at 70 mph again.
I wondered then - if we had not stopped for our little break just when we did, might we have somehow been tangled up in that mess? I prayed for the families that were involved, hoped that no one had been seriously injured or killed. I tightened my grip on the steering wheel a little bit harder, and encouraged Twinks to keep her seat belt snug. I thanked God again for our safe passage, and we motored on through the bright morning, growing more eager to see my Mom with every mile that passed.
We waited to have our lunch until after 1:00 pm; we hoped we could make a bit of the time we lost back at the wreck, and that the lunch rush would be over if we waited. As we rolled southward through Florida, we debated the relative merits of several different options before deciding we would stop at the next exit.
We took the exit, and decided on the spur of the moment to grab something to go, and get back on the road. Twinks navigation showed that we were now only about three hours from Mom's; so we stretched our legs a bit, used the bathroom, ordered our food to go, and went back to the minivan.
We pulled back onto the Interstate, and not long after, I began to worry that there was something wrong with the minivan. The van is not old - it is a 2002 model - but it has had an enormous number of miles put on it since we purchased it. Currently, the mileage reads just a bit more than double the normal mileage for a van of it's age. All of those trips to Hospital City have really racked up the miles, and while The Wrench does a great job of making sure the van is ready for road trips, there is simply no way to predict when a component might decide it's time to go.
Apparently, this time, several of those components decided to go on strike at about the same time. Who knows? Maybe they decided they wanted a vacation of their own...
I had Twinks grab the cell, and she dialed up The Wrench for me. After a rather tense conversation via the speakerphone, he convinced me to get off the highway, and find someone to look at the van. NOW. He didn't want us to go any further until someone checked things out.
Luckily, we were driving through a nice little city, and took the next exit. And, luckily the guys at the tire store that was right off of that exit were very nice. We limped in at 3:00 pm, on a Saturday afternoon, and in just a bit more than two hours, they changed the front and rear brakes, drained the tranny fluid (it was way overdue, and the thing was up in the air on the rack anyway) changed the tranny filter, and also balanced, then rotated the tires. The guy working the counter was originally from The Greater Metro, and he did his best to make us comfortable in the somewhat limited waiting room. Even though the store was supposed to close at 5:00 pm, they entire crew pitched in to help get the work done on our van, so that we didn't have to spend the night. It was 5:30 when they took the van out to test drive it; they refused my thanks, saying that it was their job to take care of their customers. My budget took an unexpected $600 hit, but the van was infinitely safer. (It also didn't make that buh-buh-buh noise anymore, and shake so terribly...) By the time we were done at the tire store, and back in the van, it was 6:00 pm. Twinks and I were both crushed - we were still more than two-and-one-half hours away from Mom's house, and the sun was rapidly sinking towards the western horizon.
Mom, of course, was just glad to know that we would be safe, and that we had gotten the van fixed. There was a Steak-N-Shake right next door, so we drove through and picked up another meal to go. We hit the Interstate again, determined to get to Mom's as quickly (but safely!) as we could.
We passed through Orlando, and Twinks averted her eyes again - but this time so that she wouldn't see the Magical Exit to the Magic Kingdom. There was much sighing and there might have even been a tear or two shed, however I could not be swayed. We stopped one last time, on the Florida Turnpike. Twinks found a "smashed penny" machine, and added several nice specimens to her substantial collection.
Finally, finally, finally, we are off of the Turnpike, and on the little state highway that runs alongside their retirement complex. We tiptoe through several miles of construction, and just as darkness falls, we pull in to the main driveway of the "Village". We have to stop at the Guard House, and get our parking pass. The guard calls Moms apartment, to announce that we have arrived. (No sneaking up on anyone here - too many pacemakers, I presume.) We glide quietly and serenely at the posted 20 mph speed limit through the darkening streets of the "Village" until we arrive at our designated parking lot.
And suddenly, there is my Mom, standing there in the warm, Florida night, with The Stepdad next to her.
She looks so frail. She is pale, and leaning on a cane - a cane! Why does she have the cane? And then she smiles into the headlights, and it doesn't matter, because I am home.
Twinks is grabbing at her seat belt, trying to roll down the window, and bail out of the minivan all at the same time. I stop the van, and tell her to "Go!" and she is out the door, and running across the asphalt before I can say the word twice. She flies first to my Mom, and with a sob she hugs her beloved Grandma tightly. Mom kisses Twinks on the top of her head, and then Twinks to Grandpa, to kiss and hug him. I slide the van into the appointed Visitor space, throw it into Park, and hop out to find my Mom standing next to the van. We hug for a long time, both of us babbling and crying at the same time. The Stepdad finally gently suggests that we go upstairs to their apartment for a little while, and then later he will help Twinks and I unload the van.
The building that they live in is safe and secure. There are elevators and hand-rails. There are charming little nooks built into the hallways where charming little chairs and benches await those too weary to continue down the hall without a little rest. Everything is well-lit, and the doorways and hallways are wide, to accommodate the many, many, many citizens of "The Village" who careen about on their little battery-powered scooters.
We take the elevator to the top floor, and in just a few steps we are at the door to their "apartment"... It is a shock to see these familiar things in such an alien environment; my mother is as Twinks and I are - a child of the wind and the light, born on the open prairies - and I cannot imagine her in this dark and claustrophobic place. I try to remember that it is night time now, and that perhaps in the daylight, it will not be so depressing.
We sit for a few minutes in the living room. The furniture is the same, but the room is tiny, and everything is crammed in. I call The Wrench to tell him we made it safely; he chats with Mom for a few minutes. She smiles, and her face lights up as they banter back and forth - The Wrench is the only guy I ever dated who my Mom really liked. To this day, she tells people that she gave birth to me so that 26 years later she could get him as her son. He adores her as well, and left unattended, they would chatter non-stop for hours. I promise The Wrench that I will call again later, before bed, and we hang up. Twinks runs from room to room, making sure that everything is there. She finishes her tour of inspection by making sure that her Toy Drawer is still in the dining room console, as it has been since she was a baby. She happily digs through her "treasures" that she leaves with Grandma, marveling over every item as though she hasn't seen it in years. I sense that Mom has something to tell me, but she is hesitating, waiting for The Stepdad to leave the room.
Finally, The Stepdad calls down to the guard house, to have the keys and paperwork for the guest apartment brought up. He and Twinks decide to stretch their legs, and they walk down to meet the guard on the edge of the parking lot.
It is then that my Mom tells me that there is "something wrong" with her. That she has spent the last week going to different doctors and having all of these tests done. That yesterday, her primary care doctor had called to tell her that there was "something suspicious" on both sides of her mammogram, and she would have to come back in.
And then the doctor asked Mom when she had suffered her strokes.
Mom didn't even *know* that she had had one stroke, let alone four "major" ones. The doctor said that the CATscan showed she had also had "innumerable" "little events".
And then Mom began to cry. I held her, and realized that our lives were beginning to turn. That I am now going to be the one who takes charge, and takes care of things. That for the first time I can ever remember, my Mom *needs* me.
I was just numb. My mind kept trying to process all of this. How could we cope with this? She lives 1300 miles away as the crow flies, and I am only supposed to be here for five days, a week at the most. Cancer? Strokes? Does this town even have specialists good enough? Who do I know here - and how can I ever leave here, knowing she is sick? Finally, I am able to form words, and asked her if The Stepdad knew everything that she just told me. She nodded "yes", and I asked her when she was supposed to go back to the doctor.
Just then, we heard The Stepdad and Twinks chattering in the hallway, so Mom quickly dried her tears, and I had to wait for the answer. The Stepdad and Twinks were eager to go see the guest apartment that we would be living in for the duration of our visit, so Mom struggled to her feet, and we all went back to the elevator.
The guest apartment was down one floor, and halfway down the hall in the opposite direction. The layout was quite different from Mom's apartment upstairs; compact, but very nice.
Upon opening the door, there is a tiny vestibule; on the left is the "utility closet". On the right is a compact kitchen: a full size fridge, small sink, and a narrow 20 inch stove, with a microwave/hood. The kitchen is completely furnished, right down to the teapot and toaster. There is no food, however a trip to Publix will remedy that. Mostly for Diet Coke & snacks - we will take many of our meals in the Dining Rooms downstairs.
The living room/dining room is large and spacious, and there is an actual "Florida Room" at the far end. The bedroom has two twin beds, with a table in between and a large dresser. The bathroom is at the end of a small hallway that starts in the bedroom. On either side of that "hallway" is a huge walk-in closet. There is no tub in the bathroom, only a walk-in shower. The toilet is so powerful that small dogs and little children should be kept at bay when flushing lest they be sucked in; the thing sounds like a jet engine.
Everything is scrupulously clean and tidy. There are soft, fluffy towels in the bathroom, and clean cotton sheets on the bed. There are piles of clean linens on the shelves in one of the big closets. There is a huge 25" TV in the living room, and a smaller TV in the bedroom. There are telephones, however, they can only dial within "The Village"; luckily my cellphone is well-stocked with Rollover Minutes.
The Stepdad and I go downstairs one last time this evening to bring up our cases. Twinks comes along, proud of the fact that she has her own set of keys for the guest apartment. She helps carry her bag, and she chatters non-stop with Grandpa as we carry things inside and go back up in the elevator.
Finally, we are in for the night. Mom is visibly tired, and so Twinks and I lock up the apartment, and walk with them back to the elevators. We go upstairs again, and I am struck once more by how small their apartment is, how cramped. As Mom changes into her pajamas in the dressing room, Twinks and I sit on her bed, and we talk - the three of us reluctant to part company now. Mom climbs into bed, and Twinks sits at her feet, while I sit on the floor. We talk quietly so that we don't disturb The Stepdad in the next room. We talk about nothing and everything. We laugh, and because we are tired, and relieved to be together again, we become silly. Everything becomes funny, and soon we are laughing so hard we are crying.
It is a relief; an emotional escape valve that lets off a bit of the pressure. Gasping with laughter, and mopping up our tears, we finally say goodnight, and go back to our guest apartment. It is the first time I have ever visited my mother, and not slept in her home. It is an odd, disconnected feeling, even though I know we are in the same building, we are not in her "house".
We unpack enough to get Twinks into bed, and after she falls asleep, I call The Wrench. I tell him what little I know of Mom's medical problems.
We cry together, on the phone. I miss him more than ever.
Certain I will never be able to sleep, I lay down on the bed. All too soon, it is morning, and time to get up. Twinks and I hurry to meet Mom and The Stepdad upstairs in their apartment for breakfast...
Next, The Chronicles of Florida. Complete with a Witch, a wardrobe, and a Liar.